Ray of hope peeks through Turkey’s sealed Armenia border

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Turkey's mountainous border with Armenia has been closed since 1993 due to a long history of bitter disputes. AFP
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  • The first direct contacts in years between the rivals' envoys will take place in Moscow on Friday
  • For the economically starved locals of the Turkish frontier town of Akyaka, these talks could not have come soon enough

The tracks have been abandoned to birds and stray dogs at the last Turkish train stop before the Armenian border, shuttered for three decades by a history of bloody feuds.

But a rare ray of hope is shining across the snow-capped mountains towering over Turkey’s northeastern edge.

The first direct contacts in years between the rivals’ envoys will take place in Moscow on Friday. For the economically starved locals of the Turkish frontier town of Akyaka, these talks could not have come soon enough.

“Since the border was shut in 1993, our region has become the country’s blind spot, locked on all sides,” said Engin Yildirim, director of the Akyaka traders’ association.

“The border is our only window to the world.”

The Soviet Union’s chaotic breakup in 1991 set off a wave of regional conflicts, sparking an all-out war between Christian Armenians and Muslim Azerbaijanis over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Armenia’s victory prompted Turkey — its relations with Yerevan already poisoned by Ankara’s refusal to recognise the genocide of Armenians by the Ottomans during World War I — to seal the border in 1993 in support of its Muslim allies in Baku.

Locals now refer to the Akyaka train stop, built out of black basalt, as the “station of nostalgia” — a memory of the days when trains criss-crossed in both directions, bringing the scenic region tourism and trade.

‘No obstacle’

“In 1991, people would flock to both sides of the border to meet up,” Vedat Akcayoz, a local historian, recalled of the days the Soviet Union fell.

“For two years, it was all the rage.”

Since then, a second war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 saw Azerbaijan reverse most of its losses and Armenia agree to a Russian-brokered truce.

The mood music has been improving ever since.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in October last year that he saw “no obstacle” to normalising ties with Armenia if Yerevan also maintained “goodwill” with Baku.

Ankara and Armenia then appointed special envoys for the talks. Last month, Yerevan decided to lift an embargo on Turkish goods it imposed over the second Karabakh war.

Yildirim said the locals are closely following the diplomatic moves.

“Our government is in favour of reopening the border and I believe the Armenians are too,” he said.

“We have no problem with the Armenians, and they have no problem with us.”

‘Time to live in peace’

The remote region’s shop owners recall a time when Armenians would come across the border and gobble up their goods.

“We did a brisk business with the Armenians,” said Hussein Kanik, a shop owner in the nearby province of Kars, which specialises in various types of cheese.

In the Soviet era, “they would arrive with furs and samovars and returned with our products… We are soon going back to those days,” he said with joyful hope.

In front of his 19th-century hotel, which once housed the elite of tsarist Russia, Gaffar Demir also bet on peace, saying the current state of affairs made no sense.

“We have a road, a railroad, but no relations with the Armenians,” he complained.

The local “Karabag” hotel recalls the hostilities imperilling lasting peace, but Akcayoz prefers to point to the region’s multicultural foundation, which besides Turks and Armenians includes Georgians, Azeris, Kurds and other minorities.

“For everyone, it is time to live in peace,” he said.

‘We look alike’

Few here like to talk about the underlining point of tension: the killing of what historians estimate is more than one million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915-16.

Ankara refuses to recognise the genocide, saying instead that both Turkish Muslims and Armenian Christians died during World War I.

A monument erected on the road between Kars and Akyaka is dedicated solely to the memory of the “Turkish victims”.

But the Armenian government has proposed sidestepping the genocide issue in the talks.

“We were taught to be hostile toward Armenians. In Kars, ‘Armenian’ was used as an insult,” said former Kars mayor Naif Alibeyoglu, who has always backed a rapprochement with Armenia — especially when the last attempt was made in 2008.

“There may be some fanatical elements, but there’s no animosity between our peoples,” he argued.

“We look alike, we laugh and we cry about the same things,” added his brother Alican, who founded the local broadcaster Serhat TV.

“I am sure the date for the border’s reopening has already been set,” he said, a Russian flag flying over a border crossing a few miles away, where Moscow has set up a base in support of its Armenian ally.

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